In the mid-Eighties, Australian cricket was a shambles – the retirements of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh had left the national side threadbare and desperately short on quality. And, in the summer of 1985-86, in a home series against New Zealand, they ran into Sir Richard Hadlee in his pomp. Hadlee claimed 33 wickets in three Tests and, in the decisive Test in Perth, took 11 wickets to propel the Kiwis to victory. lt was the last time New Zealand won a Test, let alone an entire series, across the Tasman. But with Australia more vulnerable now than at any time in 25 years, maybe the Kiwis will break their drought in Brisbane this week.
Australia have won two of their past 13 Tests and, although the situation is nowhere near as dire as in 1984-86, when they won just three of 32, the recent win against South Africa in Johannesburg, as remarkable as it was, does not conceal the team’s recent heavy going. Are they back in the winning habit after drawing the series against the Proteas? It is just one of many questions this series may begin to answer.
How long has Ricky Ponting got left?
The numbers are against the former skipper. Since the start of 2009, in his past 29 Tests, he has averaged 35 with the bat. It has not been a brief slump but rather a long decline. Perhaps the number that counts most against Ponting, though, is not runs scored, but the candles on his next birthday cake – he turns 37 next month. It is unlikely that Ponting will go immediately – Michael Clarke wants him in the team, there are injury concerns around other batsmen and he is such a towering figure in the Australian game that he will probably last the summer. But, barring a stack of runs, that, sadly, should be curtains for one of the all-time greats.
Is Mitchell Johnson cooked?
Where Ponting is a proven champion heading into the sunset, Johnson faces the prospect of being cast aside when he should be in his prime, his potential largely unfulfilled. There have been glimpses – at his best, Johnson is among the best two or three fast bowlers in the world. He has terrorised South Africa in the past and was near unplayable in Perth during the last Ashes series. But the consistency simply isn’t there – at 30, and with 47 Tests under his belt, Johnson should be a major asset as the leader of the bowling attack, but is instead a liability. If Australia are to improve, they must find alternatives.
How good is Pat Cummins?
Part of the reason Australians will be sorry to see Ponting go is that he is a souvenir from a more successful era, a flesh-and-blood reminder that Australia can produce truly great cricketers. The timing of Cummins’ emergence, then, could not be more fortuitous – in the shape of the 18-year-old speedster, Australians believe they have their next great player. He’s only played one Test, but what a debut it was – he took a six-wicket haul, roughing up Jacques Kallis along the way, before keeping his head to hit the winning runs. All with a kind of low-key sheepishness and a competitive intelligence beyond his years. Watching him bowl to
India’s vastly experienced batsmen will be one of the joys of the Australian summer.
Where does Australia go under Michael Clarke?
The time is coming for Australia to make a clean break with the past and fast-track its brightest and best prospects. Ponting, Johnson and Brad Haddin are all under pressure, while Mike Hussey, only six months younger than Ponting, has been scoring heavily enough to remain an automatic selection. For now. Before the 2013 Ashes, though, a new generation of Australian cricketers must be unearthed. Cummins and Usman Khawaja are two pieces of the puzzle and hopefully Phil Hughes has a part to play. But others still uncapped – David Warner, Tom Cooper, Nic Maddinson, Mitchell Marsh, Matthew Wade, James Pattinson, Ben Cutting, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, James Faulkner – should be trialled when form and opportunity permit.
It could begin this summer. Maybe the future is now?
Can Jesse Ryder become a proper Test batsman?
Since debuting in 2008, Jesse Ryder has emerged as New Zealand’s most talented batsman, with the possible exception of skipper Ross Taylor. He’s been in and out with injury but he’s also scored three Test centuries – all against India, no less, so it’s not just a case of cashing in against minnows. He’s had problems with off-field discipline and general fitness in the past but, at 27, Ryder needs to knuckle down and start getting the best out of himself week-in, week-out. He’s good enough to have a long Test career and he and Taylor could form the trunk of the Kiwis’ middle order for the next seven or eight years. A good series in Australia could really set him up and could establish him as the side’s trump card.
Do the young Kiwis have the right stuff?
If Australia are in a “transition phase”, as the official excuse goes, then the Kiwis are stuck in a non-stop revolving door. They have, after all, used 30 different players in their past 17 Tests. It is remarkable then, that they go into this series with a clearer sense of their best XI than the Aussies have of theirs. Martin Guptil is developing as an opening batsman, while 21-year-old Kane Williamson will be given every chance to nail down his spot at first-drop. Among the bowlers, Doug Bracewell claimed a five-wicket haul on debut against Zimbabwe and Tim Southee, who seems to have been around for ages, is still only 22. The senior players are good for a few more years yet so if they can bed down some of their promising newcomers, a period of relative success beckons. The problem, though, is an overall shortage of Test cricket.